Spotlight: UI senior keeping hands clean

BY RILEY UBBEN | MAY 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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Michael Ireland knows the importance of a clean hospital. As the leading cause of illness in medical centers, hospital-acquired infections are responsible for almost 100,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If you think about it, all the sick people are at the hospital. That's the worst place you could possibly be," the 30-year-old said. "Hand-hygiene protocols are the frontline of avoiding those infections, making sure that once you've been exposed to one patient, you follow hygiene procedures before you see another patient."

To test if protocol is used effectively, the University of Iowa senior has helped design technology to detect who in a hospital are keeping their hands clean and who aren't.

The device is made from an old pager body with a radio built into it. Doctors and nurses wear the gadget at work, and when they use a hand-hygiene machine, a message is transmitted saying they washed their hands.

The information collected allows Ireland and the other researchers to assess hygiene levels in the hospital and figure out how certain outbreaks may occur in the future.

"Because we can watch where everybody is and how they move around, we can play 'what if' games," said Geb Thomas, a UI associate professor of industrial engineering who is working with Ireland on the study. "If there's a disease that has a 2 percent probability of moving from one person to another when the people are within a meter, you could see what would happen in an ICU on a sample day that we observed. You could see how well it would spread and where."

The CDC is funding Thomas and Ireland's research in hopes that more studies can be conducted using technology known as embedded systems.

"Embedded systems refer to little computers, but they're not desktop computers or laptops that most people are familiar with," said Anton Kruger, a UI associate professor of engineering who taught Ireland about the technology. "These are the little computers that are in your refrigerator, or in your car, or in your cell phone."

Prior to college, Ireland spent time in the military using his technological knowledge to help save lives on the battlefield.

"I was an electronics technician for military intelligence," he said. "Most of it was signal intercept, signal jamming, and the electronic side of warfare. Hearing what other people don't want us to hear."

The Mount Vernon native said his work with hospitals was a welcome opportunity to apply his knowledge to a good cause.

"In a classroom, you're kind of doing a contrived exercise, where it's like, 'Build this device that counts the number of clicks you turn this knob,'" he said. "I understand, it's a good exercise, but this [research with embedded systems] is stuff that's actually being used in the real world to support research that saves lives. That's a great motivator."

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